I knew the notes. I knew the harmonies, the melodies, the changes, the theory behind it all. I knew dozens of songs—from popular standards to indie rock ballads. I had great ears, and even greater passion. But I still couldn’t improvise.
Improvisation is essential to jazz music. It’s a founding principle, in fact—to have a framework, a scaffolding, a skeleton—and then, within that structure, to make meaning from what already exists. When I started listening to, learning, and playing jazz, as a bassist and pianist, I assumed that some people could improvise and some couldn’t—that Louis Armstrong or someone was up in the sky with a magic jazz wand tapping some people’s heads with the gift while passing others by.
That, in fact, is far from the truth. I asked two jazz musicians and one DJ if they could always improvise, and they all said yes, more or less. Though my sample was small, I assumed the opposite would be true—and not because all beginner musicians lack skill, but because I assumed there had to be a supernatural moment in which the ability to improvise unlocked in the mind, as it did for me.
According to Charles Limb, a neuroscientist who gave a popular TED Talk on the science of improvisation (using jazz musicians and hip-hop emcees as the subjects), something to the effect of “unlocking” does occur when musicians improvise. My notion was that it was a grand epiphanic moment for every jazz or hip-hop musician; but Limb asserts that it’s a neurological phenomenon, which occurs every time a musician diverges from “over-learned” or pre-learned/memorized material into spontaneously created material. He states that the part of the brain related to “self-monitoring” actually shuts off so that the part of the brain that serves the opposite function—self-expression—can turn on.
That’s the science-y part that most of us are unaware of. But I still wanted to know what it feels like to make something on the spot. I posed a few questions to Al Carty, a bassist, Jean Caze, a trumpeter, and DJ Logic, a turntablist, to get an idea of what improvisation is like for them in their various musical roles, styles, and genres, how they may be different–and actually–how they could be more similar than imagined.
What’s going through your mind when you improvise? Is there ever a musical idea, which you could explain in words? i.e., do you ever have a literal idea (more specific than the title of the song) that you’re trying to convey through your selection of notes, tone, phrases, phrasing, etc.?
Jean Caze: Yes. It depends on the song, and if the song has lyrics, and I know the lyrics, then I will use the lyrics to build my solo and convey the message of the song.There’s a song called “Love for Sale,” and the lyrics are about prostitution, so when I’m doing my solo, I’m thinking about sensuality, teasing…everything that has to do with that.
Al Carty: I kind of just go wherever the music takes me. The combination of the existing chord progression as well as whatever’s being put into the song by the other people around me. Like anyone else, I might hear a rhythm, and that rhythm may inspire me to play it differently, or I may hear someone improvise some chords around the given structure, and that may get me to think, ‘Let me go the opposite direction.’ I might think in terms of interpolations, or inversions of whatever’s existing in the moment. It could be anything. But I don’t necessarily go through a synethetic process, if that’s what you mean. Although I might think along those lines if it’s a song that has lyrics, and for some reason, the lyrics connect me a certain kind of way. That may inspire me to go in a certain direction.
Do you hear the lyrics of the melody when you’re improvising?
Al Carty: Yeah…especially if I know a tune well, I almost always hear the melody throughout the course of the song. And I’m kind of playing around the melody, or playing with the melody. I’m a very melodic player.
What’s the inverse of a chord progression?
Al Carty: Let’s say someone plays C-major sharp-11—and let’s say they start playing the inversions of the chords. I may hear a melody within the chord progression, or I may start playing…maybe not necessarily a scale…it could be like a scale, or a mode, or arpeggio or whatever, but I may go the opposite direction, but within the harmonic component of whatever those different chords are; whatever I’m assuming the person’s playing with me in the moment.
Would you say that contrast is an important element of musical development to you?
Al Carty: Yes. I’m very big on chord substitutions. Even when I’m doing pop music or anything like that. Most of the music I play is not jazz. It’s usually pop, or R&B, or rock. But when we have those moments where we’re thinking of a segue of some tunes in the show, or the arrangement of something in general, I’m always thinking in terms of contrast.
How did you learn how to improvise? Could you always do it? If so, how did your approach, technique, or skill change or improve over time? If not, when did the ability to improvise unlock in your mind? What do you think triggered it?
Jean Caze: I think most people when they first begin on any instrument can have the ability to improvise. It’s just about how they learn from that moment on; who’s teaching them. When I first started playing, I could hear what the teacher wanted me to do, and through trial and error, I was able to obtain what it is I was hearing. And then the more familiar I got with my instrument, then the more things I was able to do, and convey. And then later on after getting programmed through school, I kind of almost lost it. Music was just being put in front of me in sheet music form; I wasn’t really learning by ear anymore. So later on, that’s when I got back into it—I was forced to. I was like, ‘How am I going to do this?’ And then I just listened to other musicians, copped some of their ideas until I started building some of my own ideas.
Al Carty: Playing with musicians who were good improvisers. I’m assuming that I always had the ability [to improvise] in me, but I didn’t grow up in a musical household, and I didn’t necessarily grow up with excellent musicians around me, so when I got to the place where I was surrounded by people who I thought were greater musicians than me, all of a sudden I felt like I kind of had to step it up, and it kind of subliminally opened my mind up to other possibilities, and I began to implement those possibilities as they came to me. I always advocate someone who’s trying to develop or improve that they try to play with musicians they feel are better than them.
How do you use improvisation as a DJ, and working with live instrumentation? How do you navigate between what you’ve already prepared, and what is open to spontaneity?
DJ Logic: It’s about how you feel. How you feel the room, and how you feel at the moment once you step on the stage. It’s like a painter going to his white canvas, and trying to start up what he’s going to do today. Is it going to be lines, or is it going to be shapes? And you got your paints there, and you dip in different colors in each little paint jar trying to figure out what yellow and what green’s going to turn out to be.
What is the most satisfying thing about improvisation?
DJ Logic: Freedom. To be able to play a role. Being able to experiment.
Al Carty: The opportunity to create the unexpected moment. Knowing that someone is sitting there listening, or playing with you. And no one knows what’s coming, and then that moment happened because there’s that subconscious synergy between a certain group or collective of musicians playing together, and something really special happens at a given moment within the song, and everyone there is experiencing that at the same time, and they can actually comprehend why it’s a special moment, because of the combination because of what was harmonically changed about it.
Jean Caze: Freedom. It’s your chance to mold the world however you would like it to be, in the form of sound.
Words and interview by Kyla Marshell
Jean Caze: http://www.jeancaze.com/
Al Carty: http://www.myspace.com/alcartybass
DJ Logic: http://www.djlogic.com/